Context Matters. The”N”Word

Words are powerful.  In a specific context we can find words exhilarating, polarizing or inspiring. In 2011 here’s a twist on a 19th century classic: this month NewSouth Inc. will release an edited version of two of Mark Twain’s novels: the Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)  and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) in which the word “slave” is substituted for the word “nigger.” For the record, there are 219 uses of the word nigger in Huck Finn and nine in Tom Sawyer.  Most American’s collectively shun the use of the word “nigger” regardless of their ethnicity or race.  Therein lies the reasoning for the NewSouth version of Twain’s classic novels.The revised editions have been edited by Dr. Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and University of Auburn Montgomery English professor.  Several years ago, Dr. Gribben traveled across Alabama reading Twain’s novels to audiences as part of  The Big Read, an initiative of  the National Endowment for the Arts.  The goal: to inspire people to pick up a good book.  At these sessions Gribben read the Twain novels and  substituted the word “nigger” for “slave.”  He found his audiences were relieved at the elimination of the “n” word and were able to experience the novels anew.  Talks after the sessions with educators convinced him there was a need for a version of the Twain novels that eliminated these words. So Gribben edited out the words “nigger,” “Injun” and “half-breed” in the NewSouth version of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.  His hope is that school districts across America will include these classics on their reading lists.Twain wrote his novels in the 19th century describing life and its dialect along the Mississippi River.  His characters weren’t racist – they were expressing the beliefs and attitudes widely held among the white ruling class.  To me, removing these words from Twain’s novels destroys the context in which the novels are set.  It eliminates an opportunity for educators to discuss with students the evolution of language.  Thoughtful discussions could center on the student’s views of race, identity and social mores of today contrasted with those of Twain’s Mississippians. America needs critical thinkers – and these American classics could be part of the catalyst for thinking beyond the e-notes.Twain himself defined a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.  NewSouth’s edition launches this month and it will take time to see if the edited version of the novel gains traction in classrooms across America.  If so, I consider it a lost opportunity for educators to teach context and contrast social mores and acceptable expression in 19th century America to today.

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